Carrie and Lowell strikes all the right chords

Stevens new 2015 album dedicated to his recently deceased mother.

photo via under Creative Commons license

Stevens’ new 2015 album dedicated to his recently deceased mother.

After a nearly five-year hiatus, singer-songwriter and multi instrumentalist extraordinaire Sufjan Stevens has finally graced the world with another unique and complex piece of work, this time packaged as a tribute to his mother. In his most recent album, Carrie and Lowell, Stevens returns to his indie folk roots in the most stripped down way imaginable.

There is a key difference here between the style of Carrie and Lowell and his older catalog of work. All of the bells and whistles that Stevens is known for — the small accompaniments of trumpets, orchestras, flutes and drums — are completely gone. His previous two albums, Illinois and Age of Adz, were constructed with multiple layers of instrumentals and vocals stacked atop one another to create a dense wall of music, with the latter also using synth drums and an electronic tinge surrounding the album.

In Carrie and Lowell, Stevens abandons nearly every instrument he had used prior and sticks to the basic instruments for this project. The entire album is composed solely with a guitar, piano, banjo, occasional electronic backing and Sufjan Stevens’ chilling whisper of a voice. Strangely enough, despite not having the same amount of bells and whistles as his previous albums, Carrie and Lowell does not feel any less intricate than Stevens’ previous works. In fact, the simplicity helps to sharpen the few instruments that Stevens does use, giving songs like “I’m Drawn to the Blood” and “John My Beloved” a crisply brooding atmosphere.

Tracks like “Eugene” and the self-titled “Carrie and Lowell” feature a traditionally folky sound, complete with plucky banjos and soft guitars. For every folky upbeat track on this album, however, there are three heartbreakingly sad ones as well. Tracks like “Fourth of July” and “Blue Bucket of Gold,” for instance, are unrelentingly depressing, thanks to Stevens’ soft vocals that seem to be on the verge of breaking into tears and underplayed but effective piano, all backed by an eerie electronic wail.

Sufjan stevens performing live in 2011 at the Celebrate Brooklyn concert.
photo via under Creative Commons license
Sufjan stevens performing live in 2011 at the Celebrate Brooklyn concert.

While previous albums of Stevens focused on landmarks in states or Stevens’ own mental state, Carrie and Lowell deals with an oddly specific topic: the death of Stevens’ mother, Carrie Stevens, who passed away in 2012 due to stomach cancer. The album is Stevens’ way of coping with death and coming to terms with his relationship with his mother. It focuses particularly on his early childhood with his mother Carrie Stevens and his stepfather Lowell Brams. Tracks like “Should Have Known Better” reveal that Carrie Stevens had psychological difficulties and had tried to leave their family multiple times (“when I was three, three maybe four, she left us at the video store”).

In the track “All of Me Wants All of You,” Stevens reveals how intimidated and distant his mother had been for most of his childhood, which Stevens now regrets being unable to overcome. Along with descriptions of his mother and stepfather, Stevens brings in his classical allusions to religious imagery and references to state landmarks, particularly Oregon, where Stevens frequently visited in his early childhood with his family. In “John My Beloved,” Stevens compares his mother to the disciple John, whom Jesus loved most out of all his disciples.

Some tracks here drop the imagery and metaphors altogether and explicitly state Stevens’ depressed and  apathetic state of being. In “The Only Thing,” Stevens contemplates why he has yet to kill himself, and in “John My Beloved,” he simply states that “in a matter of speaking I’m dead.”

There are few albums that come together as well as Carrie and Lowell does, bringing with it a hauntingly depressing atmosphere. The simple but immensely effective instrumentation on this album really helps to capture the hopeless mindset that Sufjan Stevens must have felt trying to cope with his mother’s death. It’s strange to think that an album could do so much with so little to work with, but Carrie and Lowell manages to prove the idea that it’s not about how many tools you use, but rather how effectively you use them.